In the history of theatre, there is long tradition of performances addressing issues of current events and central to society itself, encouraging consciousness and social change.
The political satire performed by the comic poets at the theatres, had considerable influence on public opinion in the Athenian democracy.
Those earlier Western dramas, arising out of the polis, or democratic city-state of Greek society, were performed in amphitheatres, central arenas used for theatrical performances, religious ceremonies and political gatherings; these dramas had a ritualistic and social significance that enhanced the relevance of the political issues being examined.
Shakespeare is an author of political theatre according to some academic scholars, who observe that his history plays examine the machinations of personal drives and passions determining political activity and that many of the tragedies such as King Lear and Macbeth dramatize political leadership and complexity subterfuges of human beings driven by the lust for power; for example, they observe that class struggle in the Roman Republic is central to Coriolanus.
Historically in Soviet Russia, the term political theatre was sometimes referred to as agitprop theatre or simply agitprop, after the Soviet term agitprop.
In later centuries, political theatre has sometimes taken a different form. Sometimes associated with cabaret and folk theatre, it has offered itself as a theatre 'of, by, and for the people'.
In this guise, political theatre has developed within the civil societies under oppressive governments as a means of actual underground communication and the spreading of critical thought.
Often political theatre has been used to promote specific political theories or ideals, for example in the way agitprop theatre has been used to further Marxism and the development of communist sympathies.
Brecht's aesthetics have influenced political playwrights throughout the world, especially in India and Africa.
Augusto Boal developed the Brechtian form of Lehrstücke into his internationally-acclaimed Theatre of the Oppressed, with its now-widespread techniques of --'forum theatre' and 'invisible theatre'--to further social change.
Boal's work in this area has contributed to the emergence of the Theatre for Development movement across the world.
In the sixties playwrights like Peter Weiss adopted a more 'documentary' approach towards political theatre, following on from the example of Erwin Piscator in the twenties. Weiss wrote plays closely based on historical documents like the proceedings of the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt.
A new form of political theatre emerged in the twentieth century with feminist authors like Elfriede Jelinek or Caryl Churchill, who often make use of the non-realistic techniques detailed above.
John McGrath, founder of the Scottish popular theatre company 7:84, argued that "the theatre can never 'cause' a social change. It can articulate pressure towards one, help people celebrate their strengths and maybe build their self-confidence… Above all, it can be the way people find their voice, their solidarity and their collective determination”.
The Iraq War is the focus of some recent British political drama; for example, Stuff Happens, by David Hare. David Edgar and Mark Ravenhill also satirize contemporary socio-political realities in their recent dramatic works.